July 4, 2020 Subject:
No, F.W. Harvey is not one of the great names that echo down the annals of war poetry. But he is a more engaging talent and personality than many who do.
Harvey was a small-time lawyer in the Forest of Dean, much distracted by Belloc’s French-style distributism (“Back to the land”), and he was not a success. But ironically he would soon find himself in France, and forced back to the land in the most unexpected way - digging trenches in it, when he wasn’t burying some of his best friends in it. Still he found time to collaborate on the first newspaper ever published in the trenches, the Fifth Gloucester Gazette. And as the present collection seems to improve as it goes on, I assume that the opening verses came from the early editions of the paper, representing the poet’s first attempts. At that rate, you won’t miss much if you start halfway through.
The themes are an interesting mix of day-to-day trench experience and nostalgic longing for English scenery, along with inevitable philosophical reflections on life and death. Some of the poems are too personalised for the general reader, including pen-portraits of certain characters in the battalion, and a couple of references to Rossall (the author’s Lancashire boarding-school) that really don’t evoke anything at all.
Personally, I respond well to ‘Beelzebub, God of Flies’, a curse on the pestilential insects that ruin his sleep, as well as ‘To His Maid’ and ‘Dying in Spring’. Towards the end, he offers us a number of prose-poems, featuring one (‘Heaven’) that deserves quoting in full:
"Take me, then," he said to the angel, "upon this great journey to Heaven."
The angel touched his eyelids.
"Where, then, is Hell?" asked the man.
The spirit pointed out a bored-looking man quite near the throne.
"But he is in Heaven," protested the mortal.
"Even so, but he does not know it," replied the angel.